Though known today as a highly respected artist, as a teenager growing up in Victoria Joe Average’s great passion and ambition was photography. He purchased his first camera, a Nikon, and found a friend and mentor in the photographer at the Royal BC Museum, who taught him photo skills and darkroom techniques. Things took a turn in his early twenties however when his camera was stolen and he couldn’t afford to replace it. And so his early love for photography was dropped until many years later.
It’s anyone’s guess whether this theft was one of those seemingly unfortunate events that came along at just the right moment, redirecting Joe’s interest and passion to the art form he is celebrated for today. It’s hard to imagine Vancouver’s art world, the West End neighbourhood, and past decades of AIDS advocacy without Joe Average’s immediately recognizable, vibrant, and amusing, yet heart-string tugging images.
If some scoundrel hadn’t stolen a young lad’s camera, would we have the Joe Average we know and love today?
Joe made the decision to commit the rest of his life to art, and to challenge himself to live by his art, shortly after he was diagnosed with HIV in 1984.
“The doctors said I might have six months to live, or maybe a year or more. Nobody was sure. So I had to confront the question of how I wanted to spend the last six months of my life.”
Two years later, still alive and realizing that the doctors didn’t know much more about this new disease than anyone else, Joe decided to dedicated what months or years (or, as it turned out, decades) remained to the creation of art. Inspired by the Pop Art leaders of the 60s, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein among others, and influenced by both the contours and colours of First Nations art and Saturday morning cartoons, Joe quickly found his groove.
“I looked at the cartoon-like images they were creating and thought to myself, ‘I can do that!’ … and he did.
Much of Joe’s fame and public profile derive from his generous support of local charitable causes. His work has been used for such projects as A Loving Spoonful (a charity which provides meals to people with terminal illnesses) and the Davie Village street banners. There has seldom been an AIDS related fundraising event that didn’t feature at least one Joe Average piece on the auction block. He has also been selected to judge submissions for Vancouver's AIDS memorial and anti-homophobia posters. And his work was featured on a 1996 Canadian Stamp (One World, One Hope), which was also the conference image for that year’s XI International Conference on AIDS.
Joe’s cheerful, colourful, cartoon-like pieces include images of flowers, animals, insects, and people. His creations have captured the attention of international art critics, royalty, and celebrities, as well as the public, and has been described as “a visionary kaleidoscope of colour, creativity and compassion.”
Over the years Joe has received many awards and honours, including civic merit awards, the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award (1998) and the Queen's Golden Jubilee Silver Medal for Outstanding Community Achievement (2002). In 2002 Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen issued a civic proclamation to designate November 3, 2002 as "Joe Average Day" in the city. In 2006 Joe was one of two grand marshals of Vancouver's annual Pride Parade. He was the recipient of a 1993 Jessie Award, and was officially presented to Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana at Rideau Hall. Other honours include, The Canadian Institute of the Arts for Young Audiences Award, Xtra West Magazine’s Heroes of 1996 Award, and in 1997 the Friends for Life Society honoured him with the Friend In Deed Award.
From 1991 to 2004 Joe designed the official t-shirt for each year’s Vancouver AIDS Walk. He returned briefly in 2007 with a compilation t-shirt of images from all his previous efforts. This year Joe is back, with a delightful new design for the 2018 Walk.
Twenty years after his diagnosis Joe found a way to return to his original love of photography.
“I had just made my first major sale of a piece of art and promised myself that I wouldn’t blow it all at once,” he recalls. “I promised myself that each time I made a big sale I would give myself a nice present, and be sensible with the rest of the money. So my first present to myself was a camera!
It took awhile to get past the intimidation of the new technology, and it’s still just kind of a hobby, but I enjoy it a great deal.”
You can decide for yourself how much of a “hobby” it is, when you take a look at some of the amazing photos to be found, along with an extensive portfolio of his better-known art, at his website here.
All available for purchase online. And if you are an apartment dweller with limited wall-space, one of his mini-prints may be just what you’re looking for.